Pakistan’s silent revolution

Updated November 25, 2013

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The hub for science in Karachi is largely built from charity. -Photo by Asif Umar/Dawn.com
The hub for science in Karachi is largely built from charity. -Photo by Asif Umar/Dawn.com

Charity for science

An imaginary circle of less than three kilometers encompasses what can safely be described as the hub for science in Karachi, Pakistan. Built with funds donated by individuals and groups from across the country in the last 50 years, the five centers for research that dot this particular area of Karachi University are now torch bearers in their respective fields.

Of these five centers, one is the only institute for human clinical trials in Pakistan, the other a core of computational biology and the third provides consultancy to people suffering from genetic diseases.

Besides world class research, these centers are also engaged in creating competent academia, providing solutions to hundreds of industries, as well as lending a hand in addressing various domestic issues.

The centers and their growth have been working towards what has been termed as a ‘silent revolution’ and had been described by Professor Wolfgang Voelter of Tubingen University as a ‘miracle.’

The nucleus of chemistry

The Hussain Ebrahim Jamal (HEJ) Research Institute of Chemistry was only a small post graduate institute before a generous donation of Rs 5 million in 1976 set the center towards the path of excellence. Latif Ebrahim Jamal’s endowment, on behalf of the Hussain Ebrahim Jamal Foundation, was the largest private funding for science in Pakistan at the time.

Under the leadership of eminent chemist Dr Salimuzzaman Siddiqui and Dr Atta-ur-Rehman, the institute became a magnet for more funding and projects from around the world. Over a period of time, it received $30 million in funding from various countries. Recently, Islamic Development Bank (IDB) donated $ 40 million for research on regional and tropical diseases. Dr Atta-ur-Rehman, a renowned chemist and the former chairman of Higher Education Commission said,

We focus on diseases common in Pakistan and in the region as the developed world does not consider the ailments of poor as a priority anymore.

The HEJ institute also won the IDB prize for science and technology in 2004 and 2010.

Currently, the center has one of the largest PhD programs in the country in the fields of natural product chemistry, plant biotechnology, computational biology, spectroscopy and other disciplines at the frontiers of science.

Young scholars research scientific literature at the Latif Ebrahim Jamal National Science Information Center (LEJ), which falls under the ICCBS. The facility is connected to one of the world’s largest science database, ranging from thousands of primary research journals and books. -Photo by author
Young scholars research scientific literature at the Latif Ebrahim Jamal National Science Information Center (LEJ), which falls under the ICCBS. The facility is connected to one of the world’s largest science database, ranging from thousands of primary research journals and books. -Photo by author

The ground floor of the institute holds 12 state-of-the-art Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machines that are vital in the research of the structure, reaction and other properties of various compounds and molecules, as well as an X-ray crystallography setup which uses X-rays to learn the structure of crystalline material.

The X-ray crystallography setup is used to construct 3-D structures of molecules under study. -Photo by author
The X-ray crystallography setup is used to construct 3-D structures of molecules under study. -Photo by author

“We have recently finished the structure of a compound showing anti-inflammatory activity,” said Sammer Yousuf, senior research officer at the institute who was awarded the Regional Prize for Young Scientists by the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) in 2011 for her work.

“In the last two and a half years our institute was awarded 24 international patents,” Dr Rehman proudly adds.

Since its inception, the HEJ which was inducted into the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) in the ‘90s has produced hundreds of doctorates, thousands of papers and hundreds of international patents, and also helps over 350 industries across Pakistan. The Industrial Analytical Center at the HEJ provides testing, consultancy and research for various industries in Pakistan.

The construction of a state-of-the-art center for nanotechnology is underway while the Jamil-ur-Rehman Center for Genome Research, also falling under HEJ, is almost complete. Dr Rehman is the the main donor of the institute which is named after his father.

In search of molecular medicines

Unbeknownst to many, the Dr Panjwani Center for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research (PCMD) provides the Nobel Prize winning ‘Patch Clamp’ facility to test drugs even on live human cells. It is a wonder considering that this center, Pakistan’s first for molecular medicine, was also built from charity in 2000.

The seed amount for the center, engaged in research on ailments present in the region, came from philanthropist Nadira Panjwani who set the PCMD in memory of her father Mohammad Hussain Panjwani.

“The PCMD is providing high quality research facilities to scholars at the frontier of science like molecular medicine, cancer research and neuroscience and biotechnology,” Dr Rehman said, adding,

The discovery of chemicals against epilepsy is an exciting example of PCMD’s achievement which is currently under clinical trials in Canada and the US patent of the discovery has also been granted.

Pakistan’s largest compound bank is also a part of PMDC where 12,000 chemicals are available for research.

A computer screen shows the binding of molecules in the computational biological labs at PCMD.
A computer screen shows the binding of molecules in the computational biological labs at PCMD.

Dr. Asmat Salim – an assistant professor at PCMD said that Pakistan lacks stem cell research on heart diseases and “our group is working for active parts of stem cells to heal damaged hearts.”

Pakistan’s first human clinical trials facility

Under PCMD, the Center for Bioequivalence Studies and Bioassay Research (CBSBR) is the first setup in the country which provides human clinical trials facilities to various pharmaceutical companies.

The General Manager of CBSBR, M. Raza Shah said that all the relevant departments of the center conform to the standards set by the World Health Organisation and other international regulatory bodies.

“Currently we are providing various facilities of human clinical trials to boost the local pharmaceutical industry,” said Shah.

The earthquake machine

The 2001 Bhuj earthquake in Indian Gujrat left 25,000 people dead and over a million homeless. The jolts were felt in neighboring Pakistan as well, where at least eight people were killed in the city of Hyderabad. The Cowasjee Earthquake Study Center, NED (CESNED) University was established just after the incident.

The seed amount was provided by eminent columnist and philanthropist, Ardeshir Cowasjee so the center was renamed after him.

The center works under the civil engineering department at the NED University of Engineering and Technology, Karachi, and serves as a hub of collective knowledge about earthquakes across Pakistan where stakeholders share their findings. Dr Muhammad Masood Rafi, the chairman of CESNED said,

The earthquake risk model from Turkey to Pakistan is an important project undertaken by the center.

Two of the major segments of the project, called the Earthquake Model of the Middle East Region (EMME), were studied and compiled by the Cowasjee Earthquake Center.

According to Rafi, the research at CESNED focuses on studying earthquakes with respect to civil engineering and construction, and has acquired latest equipment with the help of the Higher Education Commission.

“Professors from Germany are coming to our center to train local experts,” Rafi stated.

The center also has in it’s armoury a huge hydraulic machine which can mimic earthquakes and tests various construction materials used in quake-prone zones.

These actuators, which convert energy into motion, not only mimic earthquakes from various angles but by implying the load they can also be used for structural testing of building materials and blocks of construction.

The mammoth machine uses high energy and when in use often causes great disturbances for the university, hence the testing is done in the evenings and a separate generator is also used to power them.

Counseling for genetic disorders

The Syedna Burhanuddin Department of Genetics is one of the leading centers of field located at the Karachi University which was built by the generous funding by Syedna Burhanuddin – the spiritual leader of the Bohra community – and formally inaugurated by himself in June 2004.

The Syedna Burhanuddin Department of Genetics also provides counseling to people with genetic disorders. -Photo by author
The Syedna Burhanuddin Department of Genetics also provides counseling to people with genetic disorders. -Photo by author

The two-storey building, a blend of modern and Fatimid period structure, has in its database gene samples of various ethnic groups in Pakistan. It is a feature which can be used to look into the traits of ethnic diversity in the country and genome based research. The head of the department, Dr Shakeel Farooqi said,

We are providing services to patients who suffer from various genetic disorders.

He cited the case of a young girl who was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease – carrying both X and Y chromosomes. Genetically, females don’t have the Y chromosome as it is particularly associated to males.

The girl not only received counseling but also underwent a surgical procedure owing to her vulnerability to cancer.

The fast track gene sequencing machine which produces 180 GB of data in a single reading session. -Photo by author
The fast track gene sequencing machine which produces 180 GB of data in a single reading session. -Photo by author

A lack of awareness about such a disorder often leads to social stigmas and puts undue pressure on an individual who cannot understand the nature of their condition.

“With our counseling and advice the girl is now living a normal life and has a successful career,” Farooqi proudly add